The Extra Pass: Talking Blazers, Clippers, coaching with Bill and Luke Walton

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Portland Trail Blazers fans are not fair weathered. They have stuck with the franchise through some dark times. Now they are being rewarded — with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard leading the way, Portland fans are getting to witness some of the best, most entertaining basketball Rip City has seen in more than a decade.

Consider Trail Blazer legend and Hall of Famer Bill Walton one of those happy fans.

The big red head is around the game again, having gotten past the back issues that literally had him on the floor for years, and through it all  his passion for the game never died — and it is still infectious.

As is his love for Portland and his plaid-pants wearing coach Dr. Jack Ramsey, who coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA title with Walton as the star.

“There’s nothing like pride,” Bill Walton told ProBasketballTalk. “I played my best basketball ever for the Portland Trail Blazers…

“So many memories, all the guys I’m still really close to. Whenever you’re part of something special, you always come back to the relationships, the personalities…

“(Coach Dr.) Jack Ramsey, he made me the best player that I ever was. His ability to take me to destinations and in directions I never even really thought were possible it was incredible. And what he did, his vision for putting the team together, we were incredibly lucky in that we had guys like Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins, Johnny Davis, Bob Gross.

“And we had the Blazer maniacs. Oh my gosh did they ever make it fun…”

The elder Walton and his son Luke have teamed up with Teleflora for their NBA “Send & Score” Sweepstakes — send Valentines day flowers and you and earn a chance to win a VIP trip to attend an NBA Playoff game, NBA gear and more.

Bill thinks there could be ample opportunities to attend Clippers playoff games this season — that’s another team he played for, both when they were in San Diego and when they first move to Los Angeles.

“It’s so fantastic,” Bill said of the Clippers run of success. “I’m just so thrilled for Ralph Lawler, Mr. Clipper, the voice of the Clippers. What a great friend, Ralph has taught me so much. It’s just been incredible to see what Blake Griffin and Doc Rivers, and Chris Paul… It’s great to see what’s happening with the Clippers because the fans are so deserving and have been waiting for so long.”

What do the Clippers need to get over the top in a brutal West?

“I think trading for Doc Rivers in the off-season was big because he’s a championship coach,” said Luke, who is now an assistant coach for the D-Fenders of the D-League plus is a studio analyst for the Lakers. “He knows what it takes, he will put the confidence in the players come playoff time. Just with another year of going through the playoffs like they did last year, I think they automatically get better off that. And I think Doc could have been that missing piece to take them over the top.”

“It’s all about culture,” Bill added. “There’s never been a great player, a great team, a great organization without a great leader. Doc Rivers has proven to be that championship leader to get the guys to sacrifice for the team, because you’re never going to get it done on the big scale. If you want to score and you want to be the champion and if you want to make it all happen, you have to get guys willing to sacrifice.”

Both of the Waltons played for some of the greatest coaches the game has ever seen — Bill played for six Hall of Fame coaches from John Wooden at UCLA through Ramsey and others, while Luke was with Lute Olsen at Arizona and Phil Jackson in the NBA.

Those experiences mean both think coaching is key to really winning in the NBA.

“I think it’s huge,” Luke said. “The NBA is full of the best players in the world, so what coach can get those guys to play hard, to play together, to play for each other, that’s what really makes a good coach a great coach. And I think Doc Rivers is one of those guys.”

“It’s all about the love that from a somebody who can make guys believe there is a bigger picture here,” Bill added.

He’s not a coach, but Bill’s cup is still overflowing with the love of the game. It’s just great to have him back around the game, talking hoops. And Portland.

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Pacers 89, Hawks 85: The first half of this was tight, but a lot of the Hawks’ success was fueled by the 14 Pacers turnovers before the break. After the break the Pacers locked down the Hawks — Atlanta shot 30 percent in the third — plus Indy the pace took care of the ball (five second half turnovers), and with that pulled away. David West had nine of this 22 in the third, and Paul George added 18. Mike Scott had 11 of his team-high 15 in the fourth, but it wasn’t near enough. By the way, Lance Stephenson took a nasty third quarter fall and did not return, however it does not appear to be serious. Which is good news.

Timberwolves 109, Lakers 99: So the return of Steve Nash to the lineup did not help the Lakers’ defense. Who knew? This is 15 consecutive games the Lakers have given up 100 or more and Minnesota put their foot on the gas early with 38 points in the first quarter, led by 14 from Kevin Martin (who had 31 for the game). Minny led by 25 in the second quarter and while a couple times in the fourth the Lakers got it to single digits this was never in doubt. Kevin Love had 31 points and 17 rebounds, Ricky Rubio dished out 17 assists. It was good to see Nash back on the court and he dished out nine assists plus hit three of six shots in 24 minutes. Steve Blake returned also and played 32 minutes, had zero points and ruptured an eardrum (but will continue traveling with the team).

Bulls 101, Suns 92: Chicago was able to do what Indiana wasn’t — grind down to the Suns and put their offense in quicksand. At least for a half, but it was enough. The Bulls played good transition defense, they guarded the arc well (the Suns were just 8-of-28 from three) and they scored efficiently enough to remove a lot of running opportunities for Phoenix. The Bulls did a lot of that damage in the first half, but when the Suns came out on a 13-4 run early in the second it felt like they could sprint past Chicago. They didn’t thanks to strong quarters from Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy, then D.J Augustin had 9 points off the bench in the fourth quarter as the Bulls answered every Suns run. Goran Dragic had 24 points to lead the Suns.

Bobcats 91, Warriors 75: Golden State’s offense hasn’t been as good as you’d expect this season and of late it’s been a mess — in their last five games the Warriors are shooting below 40 percent as a team. That reached a new low against a strong Bobcats defense Tuesday, with Golden State scoring just 75 points on 32 percent shooting. Stephen Curry was 1-of-7 from three, David Lee 3-of-13 overall. Al Jefferson was a beast inside with 30 points on the night to lead Charlotte.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

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The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.